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Def Leppard + Poison + Cheap Trick

(20 Jul 2009: Verizon Wireless Amphitheater — St. Louis, MO)

“Whew, there’s a lot of people out there,” declared Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott, as the house lights bathed a crowd of 20,000 packed into the Verizon Amphitheater in the St. Louis suburbs. These fans came for some serious rocking, Reagan-era style, and they were willing to pay high prices for it, well beyond the $39-$150 ticket prices. Fans stood in 15-minute lines to buy $9.50 beers, which would soon force them into inhumanely-long bathroom lines that stretched back to the lawn seating and deserved amusement park signs (“Your wait from here: 75 minutes”). And don’t get me started on getting out of the parking lot after the show. Just before Def Leppard, the headliners, took the stage, the house music played AC/DC’s “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” at muscle-failure volume. It was an appropriate sentiment since nobody celebrates their rock ‘n’ roll heroes like these fans: Bleached and stiletto-ed Motley Crue girls, middle-aged dudes in On Through the Night T-shirts, and spandexed Final Net devotees of both genders and all ages. And as many exposed midriffs as there were in the crowd, there was no musical navel-gazing on this night. This crowd needed nothin’ but a good time—dead set on watching the night go up in smoke, rock-rocking ‘til they dropped, and really armageddon-ing it, all while singing every song’s words with deepest conviction, even if those words were “gunter glieben glauchen globen.”


Cheap Trick hit the stage with “Way of the World”, the third single from 1979’s Dream Police, a song that never charted in the US and peaked in the UK at #73. It was that sort of setlist. While the other two bands were sure to deliver nothing but greatest-hits packages, it felt like Cheap Trick were deliberately refusing to be an oldies act. From 1982’s One on One, they played the second single, “She’s Tight”, over the higher charting lead single, “If You Want My Love”. From their new record, The Latest, they chose the mid-tempo album cut “These Days” instead of the album’s arena-ready first single, “When the Lights Are Out”. And from 1988’s Lap of Luxury, the band picked the Elvis cover “Don’t Be Cruel” rather than that record’s teased-hair ballad, “The Flame”, their biggest hit ever. Strangest of all was the note-perfect version of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”, part of their planned Vegas shows in September during which they’ll play the Sgt. Pepper’s album in its entirety.


Not that I’m complaining. Cheap Trick has always been a peculiar group and one the zaniest combinations of bandmates in hard rock: Robin Zander, the golden-maned rock-god vocalist; Rick Nielsen, the Branson-comedian lookalike with the metallic guitar bombast; drummer Bun E. Carlos, the frumpy, cigarette-dangling, ambidextrous time-keeper; and Tom Petersson, a bassist so cool-looking that he knocked Nielsen and Carlos off the album covers. Tonight Zander was in exultant voice, a marvel at age 56, scraping the top of his range with clarity and power. And on the new record’s “Sick Man of Europe”, on which the band approaches career-hardest rocking, Zander pushed his voice to maximum snarl, singeing the fu-manchus off the dudes in the front rows.


Cheap Trick, thirty years now after live album Cheap Trick at Budokan, remain a hard band to knock, and they don’t quite fit with the hair-metal bill here tonight although they certainly influenced it, and, with their scintillating new album, are outlasting it. On this evening’s new material, they sounded like they are still searching, if not for hit-making relevancy, then for new sounds and stylistics. No one asks this of them, of course; their fans would be plenty happy with another helping of the exuberant four-on-the-floor power pop the band has always made. Either way, these songs are strong enough and the band’s playing vigorous enough to make clear that Cheap Trick are still full of hot love, ready to live inside your head. 


The nostalgia was thick in the air at this show—you could get a contact high from it—and Poison brought things right back to 1986, when the men were men and even the women didn’t look as fem as Poison did on the cover of their first album. Ah, Poison—of all the pop-metal bands, they had the dumbest singles, the worst album covers, and the ugliest drummer. However, they were a band so simultaneously simple and over-the-top that everyone hated them so much that they started loving them. And by ‘88, every high school kid with an acoustic guitar could play “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” because all the cute girls would sing along.


Bret Michaels’ wig looked great tonight, but his voice was ravaged. I don’t know if he’s still recovering from fracturing his nose last month at the Tony Awards (YouTube it tomorrow at work) or if he just can’t sing anymore, but it was rough going. Not that the crowd gave a whit about that, not when they were busy clapping their hands over the heads and unskinny bopping themselves silly. Plus, C.C. DeVille kept picking up his guitar and talking to us. Any old ironist can poke holes in the Spinal Tapness of all this, but it’s much more fun to admit that “Fallen Angel” is catchy as hell and that it looks amazing when 40,000 arms are swaying back and forth at the same time. And, despite the sleazy reality shows, Michaels remains an expert frontman, frantically trying to please the audience; he even reminded the crowd at one point that the Cardinals are currently leading the NL Central Division. Three times, Bret mentioned that Poison has been at this for 23 years, although the most recent song they played tonight was released in 1990. No matter. They know precisely what fix the heavy metal junkies in the audience came for, and Poison had to have looked out on that huge, ecstatic crowd and found it as good as it ever was. Ride the wind, boys.


The main event of the evening started with a massive video screen backdrop revealing (what else?) the Union Jack, which gave way to a lightning montage of images from the band’s 30-year history. It was a reminder of Def Leppard‘s beginnings: A bunch of Sheffield brats with a terrible band name who sounded like T. Rex and Mott the Hoople fighting each other to the death with their guitars. Finally the words, “That Was Then. This is Now!” filled the screen as bassist Rick Savage’s silhouette appeared above the drum riser. Those words implied some sort of update or progression; if that’s the case, they didn’t ring true, as the band delivered a show that was remarkable mostly in its demonstration that the band’s “now” looks and sounds exactly like their “then.” The band has aged remarkably well, especially Phil Collen, who, in the ‘80s, was saddled with hair that wouldn’t grow long in an era that required it and a name that confused him with another (much squarer) ‘80s rocker. Now, at 51, Collen is painfully fit and made sure that everyone in the audience got a chance to see his sculpted torso—the dude was already shirtless when he took the stage.


Def Lep, through a sheeny wash of guitars and wet stacks of vocals, successfully recreated the Mutt Lange sound that has become their trademark. I was worried about Joe Elliot’s voice before the show; something about the processed sound of those recordings suggested a digital confection, but he had everything he needed tonight, and his voice got stronger as the evening went on. He didn’t cheat a bit, even on those notes at the end of “Photograph”, and on “Two Steps Behind” (their last hit single, from 1993), played during a two-song acoustic set out at the end of the catwalk (funny—the other bands weren’t allowed to use it), Elliot sang with more beauty and control than I ever thought him capable. The show was also a reminder that these guys came of age in the era of the hotshit guitarist, and both Collen and metal journeyman Vivian Campbell (also ripped and shirtless; do you think their trainers travel with them on tour?) were both harmonics-and-whammy-bar dazzlers all night, especially on Steve Clark’s High ‘n’ Dry instrumental, “Switch 625”, the night’s clearest tribute to original guitarist, Clark, who died in 1991. And it’s easy to fixate on one-armed drummer Rick Allen, whose accomplishment, even after all these years, remains hard to believe; he was a rock here and a great showman, coming out for the encore in a Cards hat and jersey. (Fun fact: His left foot controls the snare drum.)


Technically touring behind last year’s already-forgotten Songs From the Sparkle Lounge, the band included only one token tune from that record (Savage’s “C’mon C’mon”) and, like Poison, gave the audience what they paid to hear, playing six of Hysteria‘s seven singles, for instance (no “Women”). It was as if the last fifteen years never happened even though the band has been writing and recording new music all along. Remember Slang (‘96) and Euphoria (‘99) and X (‘02)? Me neither. In fact, the only other remotely-recent song of the night was their cover of David Essex’s “Rock On”, part of their actually-kind-of-awesome 2006 covers album, Yeah!. It was a slithery crowd-fave in a night full of them. Finally, the Lep reached a climax with a series of killers: “Photograph”, “Pour Some Sugar On Me”, and “Rock of Ages” formed a metal-heaven hat trick. Then, after a one-song encore, “Let’s Get Rocked”, this tired, sweaty crowd poured back out into the parking lot.

Steve Leftridge has written about music, film, and books for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, No Depression, and PlaybackSTL. He holds an MA in literature from the University of Missouri, for whom he is an adjunct teacher, and he's been teaching high school English and film in St. Louis since 1998. Follow at SteveLeftridge@Twitter.com.


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